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How can mechanisms supercharge your teacher development offer?

The recent EEF guidance report on Effective Professional Development (2021) represents a sea change in our understanding of teacher development.

Not only does it seek to isolate the underpinning active ingredients (‘mechanisms’) with a causal link to pupil outcomes, but it also finds that the more of these that are present, the greater the impact of professional development (PD).

However, one challenge that teacher educators face is the job of translating these mechanisms into practice.

I’ve experienced a number of conversations with school leaders that have run along the following lines:

“We’re using the EEF’s mechanisms to make our PD more rigorous and have decided to link teachers’ progress in instructional coaching to their appraisal, because we wanted to align our approach with the Setting goals mechanism from the report.

“I know that we should add more mechanisms into our PD to make it more effective, but I’m not sure what good looks like. How would Manage cognitive load look in practice without adding more time into sessions?”

In the first case there is a risk of misinterpreting the purposes of certain mechanisms.

In the second, there is a lack of clarity around how new mechanisms might be coherently integrated into existing approaches.

The overarching question is: How can the mechanisms of effective professional development be efficiently translated into practice to have the greatest impact?

What are the EEF mechanisms and how are they categorised?

The EEF report outlines 14 mechanisms that have a causal impact on student learning. The mechanisms are grouped into four categories that represent the overarching purposes of professional development.

Keeping the purpose of each mechanism in mind when planning PD is a powerful starting point for interpreting the mechanisms in a way that is faithful to the research, whilst considering the need to contextualise to individual settings.

Going back to the original research (I recommend starting with the EEF’s systematic review and meta-analysis) can also help us work through the weeds.

Let’s examine a couple of mechanisms in detail – to start off with: Setting goals.

Translating the mechanisms into practice: Setting goals

The purpose of goal setting within PD is to motivate teachers (see Figure 1).

Goals help direct and manage teachers’ attention towards desirable new practices. They can support teachers to attend to and track their emerging competence, and thereby stay committed to the changes they are making (Locke and Latham, 1990).

Pitfalls in practice

One misinterpretation of Setting goals is linking it to high-stakes accountability systems within schools:

Pitfall: Linking professional development to teachers’ appraisal and pay progression.

E.g. Making progress in instructional coaching cycles is a performance management target for all staff.

Goal setting should help teachers to manage and direct their own attention. Since here the goal is externally imposed on the teacher, it is likely to undermine their agency and motivation for ongoing development (Worth & Van den Brande, 2020).

In addition, linking staff development to judgments of their effectiveness could further reduce their motivation as it risks framing professional development as a high-stakes, accountability-based process.

How might we improve this in practice?

Consider the following alternative approaches:

Example: Sharing or co-constructing an evidence-informed strategy to take into the classroom, linked to its purpose.

E.g. ‘When setting up independent work, use What To Do instructions in order to increase task clarity for pupils.’

Supercharged example: Agreeing a persistent problem with a teacher to frame a cycle of professional learning around.

E.g. ‘Problem: The teacher is thinking harder than students for most of each lesson – how can we increase student cognitive ratio?’

Since the overarching purpose of this mechanism is to catalyse teachers’ motivation, the first example above is likely to help manage teachers’ attention by supporting them to focus on a specific and manageable aspect of classroom practice.

The ‘supercharged’ example is even more powerful.

Not only does it make the change manageable, but it also reminds the teacher why they are doing it. Directing teachers’ attention to how a new approach aligns with their existing classroom goals can help them to better integrate it into their existing practices, sustaining and building their motivation.

Translating the mechanisms into practice: Monitoring and feedback

Another key mechanism that can be tricky to translate into practice is Monitoring and feedback.

It’s worth noting that feedback links to the previous mechanism of Setting goals – it can help us see how successfully we’re achieving a goal, or what we need to change to be more successful.

The purpose of monitoring and feedback within teacher development is to help teachers to develop new practices (see Figure 1), by supporting them to focus on how they might close the gap between where they are now and where they’d like to be.

Pitfalls in practice

One pitfall of Monitoring and feedback is linking it to attempts to monitor and evaluate the quality of teachers’ practices in schools:

Pitfall: Monitoring teachers for a change in behaviour following a professional development session.

E.g. Using a checklist to establish which teachers are accurately using a range of new strategies in their classrooms.

This process is summative in nature, rather than formative. It raises the stakes and makes teachers less willing to show vulnerability and share challenges.

Attempts to turn professional development (which should be inherently developmental) into an evaluative exercise are misguided and even can have a negative impact on teachers’ practices.

I’ve also previously written about the risks of viewing teacher development as a behaviour change exercise. One danger is that teachers may instead focus on trying to prove they are meeting the school’s expectations, rather than reflecting on how to improve their implementation of new approaches in practice.

How might we improve this in practice?

Consider the following alternative approaches:

Example: During low-stakes rehearsal in PD, provide concrete and specific developmental feedback.

E.g. Use pre-planned success criteria to feed-back one success and one area for development.

Supercharged example: Integrate monitoring and feedback into both modelling and low-stakes rehearsal in PD, as means to uncover teachers’ thinking.

E.g. Explore teachers’ decision making, or their beliefs about the knock-on effects of using different approaches in practice, in order to check and give feedback on their developing mental models of teaching.

Rather than assuming that teachers will immediately be able to implement a new technique in their classrooms, the first example above focuses on using feedback in a low-stakes setting to help teachers develop over time. This is far more likely to lead to effective implementation and a virtuous cycle of improvement and motivation for teachers.

This effect can be ‘supercharged’ when we focus on the purposes a strategy might play in the classroom.

In professional development sessions the mental models of a teacher educator can be exposed by way of narration – e.g. during, or after, a model. This can feed into discussions that explore teachers’ understanding of the decisions available to them at different stages of a lesson and the benefits/trade-offs of different choices.

This approach reinforces the importance of teacher agency mentioned above – we want teachers to be empowered to make decisions about when and why to use a new strategy in their classrooms.

This should reduce the risk of teachers using new strategies indiscriminately ‘because they’ve been told to’. It also makes it more likely that teachers will improve their abilities to apply new approaches into their classrooms judiciously and intentionally.

The road ahead for teacher educators

Whilst the EEF mechanisms present an evidence-informed basis for the design and delivery of teacher development, teacher educators have the challenging job of translating these mechanisms into their contexts, whilst maintaining fidelity to the underpinning theory.

By considering the purposes that the mechanisms are trying to serve in professional development, and attending to the underlying theory, I believe we are more likely to ensure that these are not being distorted in implementation.

What do you think?

How does this resonate with your experiences? Have I missed anything? There are plenty of nuances and details to dig into in future posts; let’s start a conversation and push this forwards! Find me here on Twitter or leave a comment below.


Thanks to Steve Farndon for helping to develop, challenge and refine my thinking on these ideas, in addition to the wonderful Cohort 5 of Ambition Institute’s Teacher Education Fellows.

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